Will’s latest New European column takes aim at “that Kumbh Mela of the British bourgeoisie”.
I have a confession to make: I was approached by the people who brought the case in the high court over the government’s right to trigger Article 50 without a parliamentary vote. They asked me if I’d consider writing an independent opinion to be included in the dossier handed to the justices – and I declined. I can’t actually find the email I sent to them but the general tenor of my refusal was: ça suffit!
Whatever my personal views on the matter, the referendum result was unequivocal, and to attempt a judicially mandated parliamentary overthrow – or even a modulation – of Brexit-means-Brexit, would be to plunge an already fragile polity into still more turmoil. Do I feel small now the action has proved successful? Well, yes – but again: no. My suspicion is that my own confusion mirrors that of many NS readers.
For the record: I was a reluctant Remainer, voting in support of the status quo pretty much on that basis alone: we were already in choppy political waters before 23 June, and while I by no means believed all Brexiteers to be racists and bigots, I was pretty sure every racist and bigot in the land would be voting to leave. Nor was I that surprised when the vote went the other way: you’d have had to have been a very blinkered Briton indeed not to have realised how much opposition there was to mass immigration – and quite how effectively successive demagogues have linked this to the decline in real incomes and the growing gap between the cosmopolitan rich and the parochial poor.
After the result, I comforted myself with these thoughts: the European project was always predicated on the idea of “ever closer union”; and while I, personally, have never had any problem with a European state, to most Britons it has always been anathema. Moreover, the EU is looking increasingly unstable and will very likely fall apart in the next few years; under such circumstances it might well be better to be pissing on the burning tent from the outside rather than going up in flames. And finally: granted that the Social Charter and the incorporation of the European Convention of Human Rights into British law has been seen as an important guarantor of freedom and tolerance, are we so sure we’re incapable of claiming these virtues for our own? Do we really believe Britons to be inherently more illiberal than the French, the Germans, or the Hungarians, for that matter?
Our constitutional settlement is suffering from a bad bout of indigestion, not only at the macro, international level but at the micro level as well. With the Union of Great Britain and Northern Ireland looking quite as fissiparous as it is, is it any surprise that the invisible ink of our constitution has come under close scrutiny? Judicial impartiality, the exercise of the Queen’s prerogative, the free-floating sense we have of where “our” sovereignty resides – these are all debatable at all times, but the fact does remain that the coalition government never set out the programme under which the Prime Minister now wishes to proceed: there was no explicit abrogation of parliamentary sovereignty in respect of the electorate – and no foreclosure on the possibility of a judicial review of the executive’s power to unilaterally trigger Article 50. Under such circumstances, the high court’s ruling isn’t wilful or obtuse (let alone partisan), simply logical and just. The subsequent upchuck of bilious bigotry from the black bowels of our yellow press was only to be expected.
It has been bubbling up ever since the referendum result – but it has always been there; we simply tried to airbrush it out of existence with our talk of “diversity” and “respect”. No one on a low income, with few prospects for betterment, can withstand for too long being told by those much better off to exercise the virtues they need not, except cosmetically. Really, what we left-liberals fear is precisely what John Gray so elegantly limned in last week’s issue. Whether liberals of the right, promoting a New World Order of unrestricted free trade; or those of the left, trumpeting a new world-society in which mass migrations are factored by identity politics – our “project” has hit the buffers. “History,” said Joyce’s Stephen Dedalus, “is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.” His interlocutor, the bigoted unionist headmaster Mr Deasy, still believes in history as progress towards Augustine’s “City on the Hill”, and in this respect we’re both Deasys and Dedaluses, smelling the astringent coffee even as we bury our heads under the pillow.
We heard this desperate mental diplopia in the statements made in the wake of the high court decision by Theresa May and her ministers. In the Commons debate on Monday, David Davis yet again refused to reveal the government’s “strategy”. Well, it’s ça suffit! in respect of that as well. If this was a government of principled conviction politicians (rather than a motley crew that includes plenty of fence-sitting greasy-pole-shinners), we might be prepared to listen – but with no clarity in respect of the Brexit negotiations, there can be no clarity about the New Britain they will bring into being.
It’s not enough for the Prime Minister to decry the abuse directed toward the judiciary while “even-handedly” trumpeting freedom of the press – nor to claim her government will do more in respect of workers’ rights than recent Labour governments ever did. All this smacks of is tactics – not strategy – and we’ve all had enough of those during this long year of mendacious manoeuvring.
The time has come for Mrs May to write her own independent opinion, setting out with crystal clarity how she sees the way ahead. The impasse Britain finds itself in has been created, in part, by the unforeseen consequences of constitutional tinkering – Blair’s devolution, Miliband’s expansion of the Labour Party membership, Cameron’s referendum – and now there’s no way back to the future.
I wonder if Tom Watson and Paul Hollywood are the same person? I have never seen them in the same room together – neither in the devil’s kitchen of Westminster, nor in the heavenly Great British Bake Off marquee. Now the Parliamentary Labour Party is being forced to shift to the political equivalent of Channel 4, and the Cake Meister is going with. As with the Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn, so with Bake Off: the former presenters have departed, leaving behind the weird, judgmental, wrinkly old narcissist claiming the high ground of loyalty to the viewers – I mean members.
Is the analogy stretched, or capable of being still more elasticised? Dunno – but what I do know is that Bake Off is some weird-tasting addictive shit! I resisted watching it at all until this season, and my fears were justified. When I took the first yummy-scrummy bite, I was hooked even before the camera had slid across the manicured parkland and into that mad and misty realm where a couple of hours is a long time . . . in baking, as in modern British politics. It’s a given, I know, that Bake Off is a truer, deeper expression of present-day Britain’s animating principle than party, parliament, army or even monarch. It is our inner Albion, reached by crossing the stormy sound of our own duodenums. Bake Off is truer to its idea of itself than any nation state – or mythical realm – could ever be, and so inspires a loyalty more compelling.
I have sensed this development from afar. My not actually watching the programme adds, counterintuitively, to the perspicacity of my analysis: I’m like a brilliant Kremlinologist, confined to the bowels of Bletchley Park, who nonetheless sifts the data so well that he knows when Khrushchev is constipated. Mmm, I love cake! So cried Marjorie Dawes in Little Britain when she was making a mockery of the “Fatfighters” – and it’s this mocking cry that resounds throughout Britain today: mmm! We love cake! We love our televisual cake way more than real social justice, which, any way you slice it, remains a pie in the sky – and we love Bake Off’s mixing bowl of ethnicity far more than we do a melting pot – let alone true social mobility. Yes, Bake Off stands proxy for the Britain we’d like to be, but that we can’t be arsed to get off our arses and build, because we’re too busy watching people bake cakes on television.
It was Rab Butler, Churchill’s surprise choice as chancellor in the 1951 Tory government, who popularised the expression “the national cake” – and our new, immaterial national cake is a strange sort of wafer, allowing all of us who take part in Paul’s-and-Mary’s queered communion to experience this strange transubstantiation: the perfect sponge rising, as coal is once more subsidised and the railways renationalised.
Stupid, blind, improvident Tom Watson, buggering off like that – his battles with the fourth estate won’t avail him when it comes to the obscurity of Channel 4. You’ll find yourself sitting there alone in your trailer, Tom, neatly sculpting your facial hair, touching up your maquillage with food colouring – trying to recapture another era, when goatees and Britannia were cool, and Tony and Gordon divided the nation’s fate along with their polenta. Meanwhile, Mel and Sue – and, of course, Mary – will get on with the serious business of baking a patriotic sponge that can be evenly divided into 70 million pieces.
That Bake Off and the Labour party should collapse at exactly the same time suggests that the British oven is too cold or too hot, or that the recipe hasn’t been followed properly. Mary Berry has the charisma that occludes charisma: you look at her and think, “What’s the point of that?” But then, gradually, her quiet conviction in her competence starts to win you over – and her judgments hit home hard. Too dense, she’ll say of the offending comestible, her voice creaking like the pedal of the swing-bin that you’re about to dump your failed cake in.
Mary never needed Paul – hers is no more adversarial a presenting style than that of Mel and Sue. Mary looks towards a future in which there is far more direct and democratic cake-judging, a future in which “television personality” is shown up for the oxymoron it truly is. That she seems to be a furious narcissist (I wouldn’t be surprised if either she’s had a great deal of “work”, or she beds down in a wind tunnel every night, so swept are her features) isn’t quite as contradictory as you might imagine. Out there on the margins of British cookery for decades, baking cakes for the Flour Advisory Board (I kid you not), taking a principled stand on suet, while the entire world is heading in one direction, towards a globalised, neoliberal future of machine-made muffins – she must have had a powerful degree of self-belief to keep on believing in filo pastry for everyone.
So now, what will emerge from the oven? Conference has come and gone, and amateur bakers have banged their heads against the wall of the tent: a futile exercise, I’m sure you’ll agree. Will Jeremy – I’m sorry, Mary – still be able to produce a show-stopper? Will Mel and Sue and Angela and Hilary all come sneaking back, not so much shriven as proved, so that they, too, can rise again? And what about poor Tom – will he try to get a Labour party cookery show of his own going, despite the terrible lack of that most important ingredient: members?
It’s so hard to know. It could be that The Great British Bake Off has simply reached its sell-by date and is no longer fit for consumption. Or it could be that Tom is the possessor of his alter ego’s greatest bête noire, one as fatal in politics as it is in bakery, to whit: a soggy bottom.
A French friend, in town for a couple of days recently, was suitably and stereotypically bemused by our latest bad news about terrible crimes: Justice Lowell Goddard’s resignation as the head of the inquiry into historical child abuse was closely preceded by new results from the Crime Survey for England and Wales, according to which 11 per cent of the women questioned, and 3 per cent of the men, said they had been sexually assaulted during childhood.
“What is it with you British!” he exclaimed. “Of course we have such scandals in France, but they’re largely confined to the Catholic Church.” Then he predictably went on about “the English vice”, and how the old British establishment is composed of upper- and upper-middle-class men riven by sexual frustration because of their single-sex boarding-school educations. Under such circumstances was it any wonder they all ended up becoming paedophiles?
I bristled at this bowdlerisation; yet when I came to consider the matter, it did seem as if some explanation was in order. I concede I haven’t researched the matter exhaustively, but I am unaware of any other country in which a statistically significant sample implies that 7% of the adult population are survivors of serious abuse.
The Panglossian view would be that, as British society has liberalised, becoming more open and therapeutically aware, so victims of historical abuse have felt able to come forward; concurrently, the police have become better trained in such matters, and more committed to seeking justice.
But unfortunately we have no evidence whatsoever that we are living in the best of all possible worlds – on the contrary, it is difficult to escape the conclusion that this is a pretty scuzzy world. After all, what could be more morally dubious than announcing a great clearing of the Augean stables and then proceeding to dump a whole load more ordure on the heads of those who have already suffered?
The idea that a Kiwi lawyer can swan over here and pick up rather more than £300,000 for rather less than a year of futile “inquiries” is infuriating even if you have no personal stake. At least the criticism Lowell Goddard was facing related to personal rather than institutional peccancy: those that preceded her – Elizabeth Butler-Sloss and Fiona Woolf – were compelled to go because they were personifications of the very knotted establishment they sought to unpick. Their first investigation needed to be into themselves.
Which leads us back to the high prevalence of child abuse in Britain. I was a child in the 1970s, and have, in recent years, watched as the sunny uplands of my recall are darkened by successive revelations of widespread, institutionally engrafted child abuse. If I want to infuriate my own children, I have only to summon up this redundant cliché about the recent past: “It was an innocent era.”
But I do still think the Seventies were innocent in this sense: the seismic waves were rippling out from the sexy Sixties, but people were completely naive when it came to both the politics and the morals of greater promiscuity. Second-wave feminism had hardly any traction on sexual discourse, and liberals and socialists alike made a specious equivalence between free collective love and free collective bargaining.
We were young idealists in a culture that dinned this into us: more sex = good sex. No wonder we were easy pickings for the Saviles and the Smiths. Though not as easy as the boys and girls who were in care, at boarding schools, or otherwise at the mercy of the men in authority, and the women who were complicit in their crimes.
The picture that emerges from the survivors’ evidence is of an organisational culture, in businesses, the BBC, local government and even hospitals, typified by a sort of surly yet fawning subservience. The famous disc jockey is visiting; give him a key and the run of the place. The local MP wants to come by late at night to talk to some of the boys; fine, let’s leave him to his own devices. It wasn’t necessary for anyone to turn a blind eye, because the corridors in these establishments were so labyrinthine that no one could see clearly for more than a few feet: minding-your-own-business was the shibboleth sealing everyone’s lips.
In a way, the pattern of institutional child abuse, with powerful individuals who bestrode the national stage being allowed unrestricted underage footsie at a local level, seems like a bizarre analogue of Britain’s equally labyrinthine local government finances. Ever unwilling to cede its tax-raising powers, Westminster retains a whip hand over councils, such that even the lowliest lobby fodder becomes a veritable nabob once he’s dealing with the little people, whether they be metaphorically or literally little.
The Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse has tried to steamroller its way into public acceptance by its appellation alone; but its capacity to interrogate Westminster meaningfully remains utterly unproven. For victims, this can’t help but seem like some deranged repetition: the first time they were sexually abused it was a local tragedy; since then, they’ve been abused again and again, and now it’s a national farce.
I wish I could have consoled my friend by complimenting him on his native system of devolved tax-raising powers, but in point of fact the system in France is just as Byzantine and centralised as our own; which is why, I suspect, there are a good many fonctionnaires out there still minding the business of powerful French paedophiles.
In a post-Brexit world, one in which we are supposedly committed to mending the fabric of our civil society, it seems to me the Prime Minister’s priority must be to make the inquiry she herself announced in 2014 truly fit for purpose – and if that entails some siphoning off of power from the centre, so much the better.
At the corner of the rue D’Hauteville and the rue de Paradis in the tenth arrondissement of Paris is a retro-video-games-themed bar, Le Fantôme, which is frequented by some not-so-jeunes gens – the kind of thirtysomethings nostalgic for an era when you had to go to an actual place if you wanted to enter virtual space. They sit placidly behind the plate-glass windows zapping Pac-Men and Space Invaders, while outside another – and rather more lethal – sort of phantom stalks the sunlit streets.
I often go to Paris for work, and so have been able to register the incremental militarisation of its streets since President Hollande first declared a state of emergency after last November’s terrorist attacks. In general, the French seem more comfortable about this prêt-à-porter khaki than we’d probably be; the army-nation concept is, after all, encrypted deep in their collective psyche. The army was constituted as a revolutionary instrument. France was the first modern nation to introduce universal male conscription – and it continued in one form or another right up until the mid-1990s.
Even so, it was surprising to witness the sang-froid with which Parisians regarded the camouflaged phantoms wandering among them: a patrol numbering eight infantrymen and women moved up the roadway, scoping out doorways, nosing into passages – but when one peered into Le Fantôme, his assault rifle levelled, none of the boozing gamers paid the least attention. I witnessed this scene the Saturday after Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel ran amok on the Promenade des Anglais in Nice – it was a little preview of the new state of emergency.
On Monday 18 July, the French premier, Manuel Valls, was booed at a memorial service for the victims of the Nice attacks – while Marine Le Pen has been making all the populist running, whipping up anxieties about the enemy within. For many French, the events of the past week – including the failed Turkish coup – are steps along the way limned by Michel Houellebecq in his bestselling novel Submission; a via dolorosa that ends with La Marianne wearing the hijab and France itself annexed by a new caliphate.
Into this febrile drama comes a new player: Boris Johnson, the British Foreign Secretary. What can we expect from this freshly minted statesman when it comes to our relations with our closest neighbour? There is no doubt that Johnson is a Francophile – I’ve run into him and his family at the Tuileries, and he made much of his own Francophone status during the referendum campaign. In Paris last winter to launch the French edition of his Churchill biography, Johnson wowed a publication dinner by speaking French for the entire evening. He was sufficiently fluent to bumble, waffle and generally avoid saying anything serious at all.
Last Sunday, I attended the Lambeth Country Show, an oxymoronic event for which the diverse inhabitants of my home borough gather in Brockwell Park, south London, for jerked and halal chicken, funfair rides, Quidditch-watching, and “country-style” activities, such as looking at farm animals and buying their products. Wandering among ancient Rastafarians with huge shocks of dreadlocks, British Muslims wearing immaculate white kurtas blazoned with “ASK ME ABOUT ISLAM” and crusty old Brixton punks, I found it quite impossible to rid my mind of the Nice carnage – or stop wondering how they would react if armed soldiers were patrolling, instead of tit-helmeted, emphatically unarmed police.
I stepped into the Royal Horticultural Society marquee, and there they were: the entire cast of our end-of-the-pier-show politics, in vegetable-sculpture form and arrayed for judging. There was Jeremy Corbyn (or “Cornbin”) made out of corncobs – and Boris Johnson in the form of a beetroot, being stabbed in the back by a beetroot Michael Gove. And over there was Johnson again, this time rendered in cabbage. The veggie politicians were the big draw, Brixtonians standing six-deep around them, iPhones aloft.
The animal (as opposed to the vegetable) Johnson has begun his diplomatic rounds this week, his first démarches as tasteless and anodyne as cucumber. No British abandonment of friends after Brexit . . . Coordinated response to terror threat . . . Call for Erdogan to be restrained in response to failed coup . . . Blah-blah, whiff-whaff-waffle . . . Even someone as gaffe-prone as he can manage these simple lines, but I very much doubt he will be able to produce rhetorical flourishes as powerful as his hero’s. In The Churchill Factor: How One Man Made History, Johnson writes of Winnie overcoming “his stammer and his depression and his appalling father to become the greatest living Englishman”. Well, I’ve no idea if Bojo suffers from depression now but he soon will if he cleaves to this role model. His Churchill-worship (like so many others’) hinges on his belief that, without Churchill as war leader, Britain would have been ground beneath the Nazi jackboot. It may well be that, with his contribution to the Brexit campaign, Johnson now feels he, too, has wrested our national destiny from the slavering jaws of contingency.
Of course the differences between the two politicians are far more significant: Johnson’s genius – such as it is – lies in his intuitive understanding that politics, in our intensely mediatised and entirely commoditised era, is best conceived of as a series of spectacles or stunts: nowadays you can fool most of the people, most of the time. This is not a view you can imagine associating with Churchill, who, when his Gallipoli stratagem went disastrously wrong, exiled himself, rifle in hand, to the trenches. No, the French people Johnson both resembles and has an affinity for are the ones caught up in the virtual reality of Le Fantôme – rather than those patrolling the real and increasingly mean streets without.
We all know the form: a Terrible Political Thing happens – and like many terrible political things that happen, it appears to have been caused by a combination of sheer contingency and human error. An inquiry is established to find out how far appearance conforms to reality (a philosophic question that has bedevilled thinkers for millennia, but let’s not dwell on that) and witnesses are interrogated to see if they either conspired or cocked up. In due course a Report is written comprising millions of words – and eventually (often after many years), it is released to be filleted by journalists in hours then reduced to two or three headlines, such as: “BLAIR EXONERATED” or indeed the reverse.
Unlike with Terrible Things in the domestic and civil sphere, where some sort of justice for wounded and aggrieved parties can possibly be achieved by criminal prosecution, TTs in the political and international sphere almost never result in such, for obvious reasons: jurisdictions are difficult to establish, “laws” are disputed, while enforcement is patchy and subject to realpolitik.
Anyone on the left who imagined the Chilcot report would definitively name the guilty parties, so leading to their indictment as war criminals, can’t ever have understood too much about the Britain we’ve all been living in. Perhaps that’s why it’s been Alex Salmond who has so vigorously pursued the idea: he doesn’t want the Britain we’ve all been living in to exist. Yet even if the British state is going up in flames, I don’t expect cosmic justice to emerge phoenix-like from the ashes. The purely coincidental arrival of the report and a major constitutional crisis in the same week should, however, give us pause to consider what exactly we’ve hoped for in terms of the Iraq conflict’s aftermath. By “we” I mean those of us who, on and around 15 February 2003, got it into our heads that the popular will – which took the form of many thousands chanting: “Who let the dogs out? Bush! Blair!” – was being flouted by our elected representatives.
Thirteen unlucky years later, with Iraq a failed state, its sepsis infecting its neighbours, anodyne British military boots still on its ground, and the British Muslim community widely and confusedly disaffected, we remain gripped by a free-floating fantasy that settles on anything – such as the Chilcot report – that seems to offer redress. What would we like? Why, the clock turned back, of course: the dead to rise from their graves, the maimed to be made whole, the dossier-sexers and the Dr David Kelly-outers to be arraigned, even as the entire political class that bought the phoney pretext for war hangs its collective head in deep shame.
What we don’t want to do, however, is examine the paralysis this fantasy has plunged us into. For the past 13 years there’s been no serious reappraisal of Atlanticism possible on the left; we’ve been too busy resenting Connaught Square’s most infamous inhabitant – a man who cannot pop out for a pint of milk without being accompanied by eight policemen armed with Heckler & Koch automatic rifles. And that’s the way we like it.
But holding on to a resentment – as the adage has it – is like drinking a cup of poison and expecting the other person to die. TB, who was in the frame for the TT even before the balloon went up, may look considerably older and have gone to Rome in order to save his eternal soul, but he ain’t dead yet. Meanwhile, the party he sidelined in the slipstream of his own hubristic ambition carries on knocking back the poison with predictable results. Since the EU referendum there’s been considerable soul-searching on the left – the trouble is, it isn’t our souls we’re searching, but rather those of the lumpenproletariat wot won it for Brexit. They may be deracinated “tribal Labour” – they could be altogether non-partisan; but they’ve emerged from the cracks and crannies of run-down northern estates to inflict this terrible wound on the British body politic. How could they have done it? We reach in our grab bag of hoary old epithets (the one we got “lumpenproletariat” from), and come up with “false consciousness”. Yes! That’s it – they must be suffering from a confusion about where their true interest lies, or else they couldn’t, in their millions, have made their exterminatory marks.
What about us? Our consciousness, I think, has been far more deceptive: it has prevented us from acknowledging the truth about all sorts of Terrible Things, such as our complete failure to push for a serious geopolitical realignment post-Iraq. In the run-up to 23 June, rather than espouse the positive case for a united Europe as a counterweight to the existing Great Powers, we, along with the political class we so poisonously resent, remained blinkered, with our heads still firmly rammed up the hegemon’s back passage. The late Willie Donaldson, in his alter ego as Henry Root, used often to opine, satirising the left-liberal position: “We’re all to blame.” And indeed, we are all to blame for this impasse; yet for as long as the possibility of holding someone else to account for Iraq remains, we can neither think clearly, nor act decisively.
Soap Street in Manchester is filthy. A thick, decades-old deposit of soot and grime coats the old warehouse buildings, while underfoot there’s rotten fruit, discarded takeaway cups, broken glass: all the casual droppings of the urban herd. At its westerly end, the street – which is really little more than an alley – dog-legs right, and in the crook of this bricky elbow, beside bulging wheelie-bins, This & That resides. A local institution for rising thirty years, it offers a selection of three curries and rice, for a modest prix fixe, either to take away, or to eat in on melamine-topped tables.
Or at least the tables were melamine when I was last in Manchester; now, horror of horrors, This & That has had a refurb, such that through its gloomy windows I see clean white-and-blond-wood surfaces. A shiver runs down my neck: Soap Street is in the increasingly hip Northern Quarter, where new-builds and conversions continue apace. True, it’s surpassing difficult to imagine this great, raddled old Victorian city being given a complete, luxury-apartment-and-barcode-façade-office-block makeover – but New Labour began it in the late Nineties and, ever since, the wild horses of speculation they unleashed have been snorting up and down the Mancunian streets. You could be forgiven for thinking they won’t rest until all Salford looks like Media-bloody-City.
People such as myself, who loosely style ourselves psychogeographers, can often appear as insensitive voyeurs on the urban scene. We seem to valorise in particular locations such as Soap Street, which for us are productive of reveries we prize. Surely, our desire to maintain these zones of desuetude and dereliction is proof positive of our disconnection from economic realities – while our ecstatic embrace of the buddleia bursting from the perished brickwork is surely nothing but nostalgie de la bou; in this case, a bou we ourselves will never have to touch. Well, I understand it may appear this way, but in what follows I hope to convince you that the lather Soap Street provokes in me is a rather more interesting phenomenon – a state of mind accessible to all, one that both liberates and empowers.
I stand enfolded by the crook of Soap Street’s elbow, looking up past peeling posters to the fire escapes. The ones to the right are ornate, decorative, the last gasp of the vegetative in the airless, anthropic world, as Walter Benjamin characterised the Belle Époque. But the fire escapes to the left are more angular, with a smoothly kinking and curving balustrade: these are streamlined, interwar flights, for hurrying on down towards the Modern. I hold myself in this declivity between decades and façades, eyes roaming window frames and brickwork. I sense the relationship between the two buildings as longer and more intense than any I’ve ever had. I may have been penetrated and penetrated in turn for – oh, moments, these two have knitted together over the years in a mucilage of mortar . . .
. . . and all at once I’m no longer in the city as prosaically conceived – no longer in Soap Street, in the Northern Quarter, no longer in Manchester. These purely human designations have no currency as I sense the city as a strange sort of biota: a layer of stuff that includes sewer systems and cabling ducts, canals and railway tunnels, stuffy office units and basement Chinese laundries. And the entire colloidal mass heaves and ripples down the ages as it interacts with the morphology of the land in which it is implanted and the fantasies of the myriad species – human, canine, insect, avian, feline – that infest it.
This sense of being disjointed from place and time sustains as whoever-I-am wanders distractedly around the corner, past an estate agent’s selling blond-wood-and-white surfaces by the square metre, across the road and into the Arndale Centre. You can’t blame Tony Blair for everything; the unreal IRA has to take some responsibility for the weird atmosphere in the Arndale: for the massacre of innocent fish and fowl going on in the food court, the jitterbugging along the central concourse. The sites of terrorist outrages bear their psychic scars – the bomb that demolished the adjacent Marks & Spencer in 1996 is still sending its shock wave howling down the years; I see it in the faces of the shoppers as they stream past me, feel it in the slow and clammy shudder of my own skin.
Not that I’m that embodied yet; it will take me another half-mile or so of my own streaming before I re-coalesce in my social identity. For now, I remain a flux, a shadow in sunlight, a smirch on a shop window. I pause by the wall alongside the Quaker Meeting House on Bootle Street. Every time it fools me: the venerable tree spreading its boughs over the ancient brickwork seems to beckon to some secluded garden, but there’s only a scrap of car park behind the wall. Or is there? H G Wells wrote a story about mystical experience that takes its title from a nondescript green door off the Cromwell Road which acts as a portal for his protagonist’s trip to the Other Side, and while I’ve no truck with nirvana, I am a true believer in the power of deep absorption into the spirit of a place; it liberates, imaginatively empowers, and can make of a half-mile’s walk across Manchester a journey deep into inner space.
I once ate three meals in an evening – and how real is that? It was in Portugal, on the Algarve, and I was travelling alone, aged 20. At a beachfront café, I fell in with some German women who were a little older than me. One of them, who was horse-faced in an attractive, three-times-around-the-paddock-cantering-vigorously sort of way, took a shine to me – and took a shine in particular to the way that I demolished my steak and chips. “Mein Gott!” (or some other stereotypical German exclamation) she cried, “You are having the most impressive appetite – this is very sexy in a man!”
So, thinking I was on a promise, I ordered a second portion, then a third, but to no avail: the horse-faced German galloped off into the Portuguese night with another rider, leaving me to toss and groan and belch the night away. I thought about this the other evening when I found myself eating at the same restaurant for the third time in a week. As I’d ordered the same thing on the previous two occasions, I threw risk to the wind and ordered it again. I say “it”, but actually my repetitiveness was more profound.
I ordered three courses on three separate evenings and all of them were the same. It gets better (or conceivably worse). The first time, I was with someone called Laurie; the second, I was with someone else called Laurie. When I realised that I was eating the same thing, in the same restaurant, accompanied by someone with the same name, for the second consecutive evening, I couldn’t forbear from informing the maverick sociologist and presenter of Thinking Allowed on BBC Radio 4 (for it was Laurie Taylor) – but he sort of blanked this information and shortly afterwards he made his excuses and left, without having so much as touched his starter.
I didn’t mind: I had my mackerel pâté with marinated beetroot to look forward to, followed by the bream with heritage tomato salad and olive oil mash (whatever that might be – personally I’ve always found mashing olive oil surpassing difficult).
There were these culinary treats and also my location, as I was eating in one of the restaurants that is realest to me. It’s not a great restaurant – arguably not even a passable one – but that doesn’t bother me, because the important thing about Joe Allen in Covent Garden is that it is pretty much unchanged since it first opened in the late 1970s: it has the same exposed brick walls, the same woodblock floor, the same long mahogany bar, backed by a full-length mirror. In its heyday, Joe Allen was the hot spot for theatreland and you often saw name actors, directors and playwrights eating there, while many of the staff were larval versions of these professionals, hustling for tips while they waited for their big break.
The framed playbills and posters on the walls remain the same – but in the past few years, since the business was sold to Stephen Gee of Carluccio’s infamy, hairline cracks have begun to appear in the ageing establishment’s slap. The clientele are now more likely to be bridge-and-tunnellers in for a show, rather than the showmen and show-women, while the staff no longer have any pretensions to anything other than a decent wage.
Meanwhile, the menu has mutated. I shan’t bother to itemise the changes exhaustively but the most significant alteration is to its signature bacon cheeseburger. Once positively globular – so stuffed was it with beef, pork, cheese and dill pickle – it now crouches on the plate, looking distinctly flat and wooden. As for the chips, these were once thick-cut and deep-fried in beef dripping, but now they arrive in one of those dumb little metal buckets that are all the rage – moreover, they’re indistinguishable from the ones at McDonald’s.
Am I going to move my business elsewhere? Clearly not, as the three visits in the past week would seem to confirm. Why? There are several reasons for this. First, location: Joe Allen is perfectly placed for my far-flung children to rendezvous. Second, ambience: the restaurant has the air of an Edward Hopper painting, complete with solitary Martini drinkers.
Third, history: the Family Self has been eating here since it opened. Indeed, this was the restaurant where we used to meet when my mother was still alive. And this last reason is perhaps the clincher, explaining not only why I keep going but why I feel compelled so often.
Everyone knows that food is the mortar that cements the family unit, and when your family unit is as, um, non-unitary as mine, the mortar needs to be that much more consistent. Eating at Joe Allen connects me vitally with my late mother’s digestive tract, for she was a New Yorker by birth and the restaurant could have been created for her, as it has a branch in London and another on West 46th Street. Yes, this is an old-style New York bistro – and my mother was an old-style American wiseacre, with a nice line in nasty put-downs.
On that basis alone, I’m happy to go on picking up the tab. As to why my menu selections have been quite so unadventurous recently … Well, while the pace of change is accelerating in almost all areas of our national life, I find comfort in stasis to the point of constipation.
Scientists examining a chicken nugget have discovered DNA from over a hundred individuals mixed into a fowl mush. It makes you think, doesn’t it? I mean, I always used to say to my kids when they ordered nuggets, “You realise that’s made of crushed-up chicken eyelids and testicles,” but I still imagined these were the parts of at most two or three bodies. And while no one with eyes (lidded or otherwise) could fail to see how disgusting the battery farming industry is, this new intelligence gives it a truly diabolic cast: what we’re participating in here is a sort of chicken holocaust.
I mean, I like Sadiq Khan well enough – I even voted for him to become London mayor; and I applaud his decision to attend a Holocaust memorial event on his first day in office. But c’mon, now, Sadiq, that holocaust took place some time ago, while you can walk past any takeaway, anywhere in Britain, and see a teenager put a hundred chickens in his mouth at once! How much better it is when they stick to their staple food – one that has sustained generations of European and American children, and that, one hopes, will do so for many more years to come. I refer, of course, to the cheese sandwich.
A few weeks ago I was having supper at a pizza joint with my friend Cressida, when she remarked, apropos of my ordering a Caesar salad: “Well, it makes a change from eating a cheese sandwich, which is basically what our kids have at every meal, and we ourselves do for a high proportion of them.” Then she began to itemise some of the meals that are “basically a cheese sandwich”. Lasagne, spaghetti Bolognese with Parmesan cheese, a tricolore salad with a piece of nice, crusty bread? All of these, basically, are cheese sandwiches reconfigured – as is almost all Italian cuisine, the pizza being only the most egrcheesgious example.
“But what about a lovely serving of cassata, or an ice-cream treat?” I hear you moan. To which my only reply is: add a wafer, and in all but name you have a cheese sandwich right there on the plate in front of you. After all, what’s ice cream? Only cheese-in-waiting. Cheesy crackers, cheese footballs, the Swiss raclette – the French onion soup served with a chunk of baguette – the humble ploughman’s lunch, or the businessman’s haughty oysters mornay; all, let’s face it, are basically cheese sandwiches. I’m not arguing that this food monoculture is a bad thing – on the contrary, with whole flocks of chickens being immured in nugget-hecatombs, it’s comforting to realise there are still some things in the world that are fairly undifferentiated. True, a cheese sandwich can be a baroque creation, with choice ingredients piled high on a seeded bun: a meat pattie, lettuce, tomato, a wedge of cheese and a dill pick— Oh! silly me, that’s a cheeseburger.
But alternatively a cheese sandwich can be beautifully simple. Consider the lonely Anatolian shepherd, a figure out of antiquity with his woollen cloak and untreated hypotension. See him withdraw a hard disc of unleavened bread from the folds of his cloak; see him withdraw a lump of hard cheese from some other folds of his cloak. See him combine them – and reflect that what you are witnessing is a way of making a cheese sandwich that has remained unchanged for millennia, perhaps since the very first Anatolian grabbed a lactating ewe and rubbed its udder against some emmer wheat, so commencing the whole strange business we call civilisation.
About ten thousand years later, this phenomenon has bodied forth into the world we see about us: a society in which fortunes can be won or lost on the turn of a cheese toastie. One multimillionaire who owes his fortune in large part to an ability to dream up felicitous combinations of basic wheat and dairy products is Jamie Oliver. On his website, he discusses making a cheese sandwich with such oracular eloquence that, reading him, I felt I had a direct connection to some great prophet or otherwise holy man.
“A toasted cheese sandwich is a beautiful thing,” he writes, at once drawing our attention to the sheer wondrousness of God’s creation, “but I’m not messing about here – this is the ultimate one and it’s going to blow your mind.” Whoa! There it is – suddenly you’re in the presence of Ecclesiastes, half expecting Jamie to assert that, of the making of many cheese sandwiches, there is no end (which indeed is the case, especially if you’re taking young folk camping).
Instead, the man who has done more for Britain’s children than anyone since Lord Shaftesbury admonishes us in more exultant tones: “But there is a particular sequence of events that needs to happen in order to achieve the most ridiculously tasty, chomp-worthy sandwich.” In other words, the road of wisdom leads to the palace of excess, because: “Follow this recipe, and it will always make you feel good. It is also especially useful when you’re suffering from a light hangover. This is when the condiments – dolloped on to a side plate like a painter’s palette – really come into their own.”
Stirring stuff, which is why I’m getting up a subscription to replace Eros with a life-size nude statue of Jamie Oliver pointing a fondue fork towards the East End.
In his history Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds (the work that lends its title to this column), Charles Mackay disdains the matter of fashion, regarding it as such a transparently crazy and bewilderingly evanescent phenomenon, that to discuss this or that rage for apparel would be quite de trop.
I’ve broadly followed my master on this, though in the past I have discussed such oddities as the mass delusion among young men that the world really wants to see the waistband (and quite a lot of the material) of their underpants. I had some incorrect hypotheses about the origins of this lunacy, and was put right by a savvy reader who informed me that the fashion – if it can be so called – originated in the penitential gulag of the United States, where young African-American men are deprived of their belts and shoelaces, and so hobbled by denim.
I could, of course, go to town on the madness of the great crowd of legislators, law-enforcement agencies and bigots of all stripes who conspire to keep a million black men in jail (so indirectly forcing us to look at all those underpants), but I have something far more important I wish to discuss: shirt tails. Yes, you heard me right: taking my role as the Prince of the Picayune seriously, I wish to dedicate the next 600-odd words to these lappets of cloth, and specifically to their tucking-in (or not).
Time was when no shirt tail went untucked, just as no good deed was undone. I grew up in an innocent era, long before Jimmy Savile invented paedophilia, when we all listened to the Home Service for entertainment, while for a treat we smeared Marmite on our ration cards and licked it off.
Before we scampered shivering on to the rugby pitch, Mr Murgatroyd would check that we hadn’t “cheated” and worn our underpants, by sliding his hand under the waistband of our shorts and having a bit of a rummage around.
As I say, it was an innocent era, and none of us begrudged him copping a feel, but what bothered me then – and bothers me to this day – is that I can’t remember whether I tucked my shirt into my shorts in those days or not.
True, the untucking of rugby shirts was an informality that probably got under way in the Swinging Sixties, along with similar dishabille on Hawaiian beaches, but at some point in the past ten (or possibly even twenty) years, people stopped tucking in their workaday shirts and blouses as well. Now the fashion – if we can dignify it with such a name – appears ubiquitous, such that as one walks the clone high streets and shopping esplanades of Britain, one sees legions of these sloppy dressers shambling towards you.
“So many,” as Eliot might well have said, “who would’ve thought life would’ve untucked so many?” And included among them is me, because although I, too, cannot remember when it started, I haven’t done any serious tucking in for what seems like a long cotton time.
But why has this come about? An obvious explanation is that it’s due to the hellishness of the modern trouser, with its tight and flat waist. Back in the pleated day, when my father wore grey flannel bags that could easily do joint service as temporary accommodation for a platoon of the Home Guard, there was plenty of room for shirt tails as big as elephants’ ears, but nowadays even modest flaps, when tucked, ruck up to form an uncomfortable bulge.
A complementary reason – for men at least – is that the widespread adoption of boxer shorts has also cut down on the crotch space available. A third factor may be an odd sort of sartorial-cultural transmission: with more people of Indian subcontinental extraction about, dressed in shalwar kameez, the rest of us may be unconsciously aping them. I concede that this seems a little far-fetched – but you’ll agree that it relates the practice to some sort of style.
Otherwise, we can only view the untucking as evidence of a mass infantilism – which is how I am inclined to feel when I see these kidults coming towards me with their shirt tails a-wavering. I can barely restrain myself from saying to each and every one of them: “Come here and I’ll tuck your shirt in for you.” It’s only the memory of giving evidence at Mr Murgatroyd’s trial that restrains me – this, and the flapping fact that I, too, am but a small linen wave in the great, heaving ocean of the untucked.
But at least in my case there’s an excuse: my father (he of the big bags) had great difficulty in maintaining any semblance of being comme il faut and absolutely no modesty at all. Suffering as he did from the social necessity of tucking his shirt into his trousers; he would then tighten them with a belt lashed around the waistband. Unfortunately, so antiquated were his strides that they weren’t equipped with belt-loops, and so the whole assemblage would begin to unravel after a few . . . strides. Unperturbed, the Old Man would simply ungird himself in plain sight, exposing acres of bilious yellow flannel underwear, retuck, and gird up once more. It was a maddening spectacle, not just embarrassing – but then it did prepare me for the general shapelessness of things to come.